By Anthony Perconti
I first became aware of the works of artist Guy Davis, I believe, in the late 1980’s. My local comic shop carried the Caliber series, Baker Street, along with a host of other black and white indie books. Back then though, it didn’t appeal to me: I was a marginal fan of Sherlock Holmes (not so with Punk Rock) and the plodding, cerebral tone of the book was lost on me. To be fair, my tastes still hadn’t matured. My next encounter with Davis came around 1993, when the fledgling Vertigo Comics exploded onto the scene. At this point in my life, I was in college and my tastes had evolved.
Being a fan of old black and white crime films such as The Maltese Falcon, Night of the Hunter, Out of the Past and Judex, along with those old Orson Welles The Shadow radio dramas, Matt Wagner and Guy Davis’ collaboration on Sandman Mystery Theatre knocked my proverbial socks off. His intelligently written and moodily rendered pulp noir series certainly took chances in its content and subject matter.
Later in that decade, Davis introduced his creator-owned project, The Marquis, to the world. Differing in tone from Mystery Theatre, The Marquis shifted to straight-up horror, set in a world reminiscent of 18th Century Paris, or perhaps Vienna. This comic combined elements of old-world European architecture, Venetian Carnival, Francisco Goya’s series The Black Paintings, the Gothic storytelling tradition, and John Carpenter’s The Thing into a breathtaking and disturbing work of illustrated horror.
Danse Macabre (1) takes place in Venisalle, a fictional city (and surrounding territory) that is inspired by various European Enlightenment Era metropoli. The city is under the “protection” of the fanatical Ministry of the Inquisition, in which the Pope Regent and his vast bureaucratic apparatus hold sway. This milieu is defined by its relationship with sin. Denizens of the city, from the poorest beggar, to the wealthiest aristocrat, don a mask when interacting in the public sphere.
This social more is utilized as a concrete reminder that the vast majority of the populous sinful and in turn, must hide their shame behind a veil. What at first glance seems like a society in the midst of an Enlightenment, the truth is that this is not the case.
The world of The Marquis is steeped in religious conservatism and fervor, superstition and metaphysical terror are de rigueur. It is a setting in which faith and temptation are constantly at war, where human souls are currency and always in play.
Vol de Galle is the titular Marquis of the series. He is an aged man, who dedicated his life to the Pope Regent’s various religious wars, as well as being a devout member of The Ministry. De Galle is a true believer: a chaste and pious individual who has spent his life in the service of his faith. Davis peppers in de Galle’s origin, parceled throughout the several issues that make up this series.
While praying one evening, he is visited by the apparition of Saint de Massard (a pivotal religious figure of this world). “For the souls of hell have escaped into your world. They have possessed this town of yours, using its lives to continue their sins…corrupting them with their ways and damning their souls to hell.” The apparition bestows upon de Galle a new holy cause and several gifts.
The ability of second sight, to see the damned hiding within human forms (or masks, if you will). Two consecrated pistols and a rapier, holy weapons (and symbols of office) that can send the devils back to hell. Bolstered by this new purpose and divine gifts, de Galle stalks the streets of the city (dressed head to toe in black) as The Marquis.
The story takes a complicated turn, when General Herzoge is dispatched by Grand Inquisitor Morsea to investigate and capture the person (or devil) responsible for the rash of murders plaguing the city. This series of events leads The Marquis and Herzoge, two men of varying degrees of faith, on a collision course. Guy Davis weaves an engaging tale of an individual who possesses an unshakable sense of duty, moral purpose, and clarity. Yet, small doubts begin to creep in and accrue. It seems as though de Galle is the only person with the ability (or blessing) to see these devils for what they truly are.
The city authorities are left to puzzle over why these (human-seeming) victims are littering the cobbled streets and piazzas. That is, until issue five. Davis drops the proverbial bottom out from under the reader (and de Galle as well), in a shocking denouement concerning the true nature of The Marquis’ divine (or perhaps, more accurately, chthonian) patron and remit.
What precisely is he the Marquis of? Let’s just say that de Galle is a pawn in a much larger and complicated game. Where blind, unquestioning faith can be twisted and weaponized to serve ulterior purposes. Or as the old proverb states: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
In my view, Guy Davis is at the height of his artistic and creative abilities with this series. That is certainly saying something, given the fact that he would become the predominant artist on Michael Mignola’s Hellboy universe title B.P.R.D. from 2003 to 2011 (quite an impressive tenure, to be sure).
His sense of pacing, dialog and action work in harmony in conveying this tale of supernatural terror. His ability to illustrate Rococo architecture, gilded filigree weapons, cathedrals and ostentatious marble iconography is absolutely breathtaking.
The city of Venisalle comes to life through Davis’ painstaking attention to detail. This is a world that seems lived in and antique: clothing is rumpled, paper mâché masks are hideous, people are not portrayed as paragons of Hollywood beauty (as in many other comic books). These flourishes lend a hefty degree of weight and verisimilitude to this project. The combat scenes are precise and kinetic, as well.
You can practically hear the clash of steel and the booming discharge of muskets and flintlocks. The victims who are devil-possessed suddenly transform from bipedal human beings into monstrosities sporting elongated (and mismatched) appendages, gnashing fangs, tentacles, excess bags of flesh and loping gaits. A proverbial carnival of body horror grotesqueries that would make David Cronenberg or Junji Ito proud.
But the crowning achievement of Davis’ art is in issue five. When the veil is lifted from the eyes of hapless de Galle and he is allowed entrance to his patron’s realm, the enormity of his mission and his failed assumptions hit home. Like in many works of cosmic horror, the shock comes at the point when the protagonist learns of the true nature of the world, or universe. Blind faith leads to betrayal.
It is at this critical juncture that Davis introduces, no, utterly saturates the pages of this black and white comic in scarlet, ramping up the grotesquery level exponentially. It is within this sequence where Davis’ art shines in all its lurid, hellish glory. The Marquis: Danse Macabre, is a love letter to the Gothic horror genre, by way of the French Grand Guignol. It is a comic in which even the best of intentions can lead a person straight into the bosom of hell. It is also a modern horror masterpiece. Read it at your own peril and walk the road to hell.
- Long out of print, Danse Macabre has been collected into The Marquis: Inferno omnibus. Inferno brings together Macabre, along with the subsequent Marquis series, Hell’s Courtesan. An introduction by Michael Mignola and a Sketchbook by Davis is included as well in this collection. Inferno is available in print, albeit pricey and in a moderately priced e-book format. Amazon Link